Chasing the White Whale

Those of you who follow my Twitter or Facebook pages will know that I recently read at the Royal Festival Hall, London, as part of Moby-Dick Unabridged. The project was as crazy as it sounds: the entirety of Melville's epic novel, read over four days by an enormous team of writers, celebrities and members of the public. My little contribution was to be a ten minute reading, somewhere in the vicinity of Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope.

Even if you haven't read the book, you almost certainly know the story of Ahab, Ishmael, and the pursuit of the great white whale. It's a story of revenge and obsession, of a reckless, single-minded pursuit of one's prey that somehow becomes your entire life.

It's a sentiment that every writer knows all too well.

There's a reason that Moby-Dick is so beloved among writers. In Ahab's blinkered mission we see something of our own stubborn adherence to our dream. The white whale is our desire to see our work in print, to put the words in our head down on the page for people to read. We pursue it despite rejection after rejection, despite the havoc it wreaks in our personal lives, despite the overwhelming likelihood of our ultimate failure. Being a writer makes no sense, if we're trying to be logical. Most authors would make Ahab look like an inconstant ditherer.

The Moby-Dick Unabridged reading became a tiny white whale too. The morning of the reading my wife fell down the stairs, injuring her ankle and resulting in three hours in A&E. It seemed uncertain whether I would even make it to the Royal Festival Hall. Yet somehow it seemed vitally important that I should, that I should overcome the obstacles fate was throwing at me and make it onto that stage. Looking back, my obsession was positively Ahabian.

Of course, Moby-Dick is about more than just a man, and a whale, and an obsession. If there was anything that I learned during my Unabridged experience, it was that Melville's novel contains multitudes. There's humour, and pathos, and tragedy, and adventure, and long, long passages about the intricate workings of whaling vessels. And so, so much more.

In a moment of bizarre coincidence, a story of mine was also just published in Popshot magazine. The story, 'Fathoming', involves a daring plunge beneath the waves, in an attempt to understand those murky waters that mankind has yet to conquer. While reading Moby-Dick live on stage, I came across this:

"That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou has been where bell or diver never went..."

The passage is so close to the ideas behind my own story that it immediately jumped from the page. It might almost have served as an epigram to the story.

Finally, I'd be doing myself a disservice if I didn't mention my own current white whale. For the past six months I've been working on an anthology of short fiction about fatherhood, Being Dad, gathering brand new stories by acclaimed authors such as Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, Dan Rhodes, Nicholas Royle, Courttia Newland, and many many more. We're currently crowdfunding the publication, with a target of £3500 - as I write, we're almost 80% of the way to that target, but with only five days to reach it. Once again I can see a shadow of Ahab's obsession in my own obstinacy, single-mindedly throwing myself after this dream to the detriment of the rest of my life.

So please, please - if you're able to, check out the Kickstarter campaign for Being Dad, and back us by preordering a copy of the book. Help me harpoon this white whale.

(Thanks to The Special Relationship for organising Moby-Dick Unabridged and being so understanding. You can listen to the unabridged reading of Moby-Dick on the Southbank Centre Soundcloud, including my own contribution in Chapters 72 and 73 here. I start about 8 minutes into Chapter 72. The Monkey-Rope.)